And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” The Lord replied, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to (this) mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’? Would he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’? Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.'” (Luke 17:5-10)
Last night I had a heart-to-heart with a dear friend going through a really painful time. On the train ride home I was left with heavy, distressing thoughts and when I got to my apartment it was all I could do to be pleasant to my roommates before heading to bed. Sleep did not come easily. Every few hours I was awakened, filled with panic for my friend, and then would move restlessly for fifteen or twenty minutes before falling back into a light sleep. At 4:30 a.m., my body decided it was through trying to rest.
I was awake when my alarm went off but too exhausted to get out of bed. I heard the first roommate leave and knew I was running way behind schedule and had missed Mass. When I heard the second roommate rustling around I finally forced myself to the coffee machine.
I held my friend’s pain so close to me as I got ready. And finally I asked God, who is not confined by whether or not I made it to Mass, or my messed up prayer routine, or my sleeplessness, or my desire to push Him out when I’m not at my best, what to do. And the verse above came to my head: “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.” Not exactly comforting. I thought it over during my walk to the subway. The servant does not come in from working and get sat immediately at table. He must tend first to his master. “Listen, kid,” God seems to be saying, “I’m not going to be putting you in charge of making this better. What can you do? What you are obliged to do.” And what are we obliged to do? We are beings ordered toward worship; we are followers of Christ who must proclaim Him crucified and resurrected. I am obliged to show up at work and, as my friend encouraged me last night, to “be excellent” while there. Never mind that it might go unnoticed. Someone is watching; He is the one helping, blessing, listening in the middle of the night. I can hold on to my friend’s pain, cradle it, mourn over it, refuse to let it go, or I can hand it over, get to work, and stop letting my spiritual life be a series of upheavals. My friend asked me for my prayers, not my anxiety; I ought to respect her wishes.
Today I am grateful that God is God, that I am not God, that God does not abandon, that God keeps his promises. There is toil in the fields and at the table. He did not promise otherwise. But there is unthinkable compensation that goes beyond what we have done and suffered, and it’s something we can tap into even in the moment of pain.